There's no use denying that the bloom is off the rose, but don't for a minute think that means Shrek the Third stinks. After the sustained comic brilliance of Shrek and Shrek 2, maybe we should be thankful for the breather supplied by a little water-treading.
The zingers still fly thick and fast — with all the rapid-fire asides and absurdities, this latest Shrek often seems one step removed from the frenetic desperation of a Naked Gun flick — but the story this time out is clearly aimed more at satisfying kids than engaging grown-ups. The basic plot here involves a couple of bargain-basement Joe Campbell hero's quests paralleling one another: Shrek overcoming obstacles in order to own up to the responsibility of parenthood, while a young, untested Arthur (voiced by Justin Timberlake) jumps through similar hoops in a journey to become king. Meanwhile, anything-but-charming Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) enlists a gaggle of storybook villains to help him exact revenge on Shrek and snag the crown for himself. The odds are good that you can guess how it all turns out.
The patented Shrek formula remains intact, with myths and modernity conflated like crazy, but the jokes simply don't soar as high this time, and the ubiquitous pop-culture references are even becoming a bit strained (we have to make do here with Merlin reinvented as a post-nervous-breakdown high school teacher given to spouting New Agey catch phrases).
That said, the animation is still very nice, the comedic shifts from sly to slapstick are smoothly managed, and, although there seem to be dozens of bad guys here (Captain Hook and various wicked witches among them), the script feels considerably less cluttered than the season's first blockbuster, Spider-Man 3, which featured a mere three villains.
Shrek the Third (PG) Features the voices of Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Rupert Everett and Justin Timberlake. 3 stars